GMOs for Profit: The Missing Context of Industrial Agriculture
It is not what GMOs are that should demand so much attention but, rather, what they do: They lead to corporate control over the food system.
An editorial in Science from September 2013 has come out in strong defense of GMO biotechnology, criticizing the destruction of experimental GM Golden Rice fields in the Philippines by protesters, or “vandals.” Since then, the blogosphere has erupted with condemners and defenders once again accusing each other of ascribing to bad science, being ideologically driven and profiteering from their respective movements.
But while the narrow debate rages on about the inherent safety or harm of GMOs to humans and the environment, the more fundamental issue of the specific role GMOs play within the greater context of a globalized and industrial agriculture is left without comment.
The editorial, titled “Standing Up for GMOs,” is sponsored by 11 scientists and focuses on the potential utility of Golden Rice, ultimately using it to portray GMO technology in general as a valuable tool that society should use because of its “potential to save millions of impoverished fellow humans from needless suffering and death.”
This type of narrow analysis, focusing almost singularly on the dormant ability of GM crops to feed and nutritionally supplement the world’s growing population is astoundingly selective and therefore significantly misleading. It is a far cry from seeing how GMO technology actually functions within the broader framework of industrial agriculture, a model of production that is completely focused on profits, efficiency and yields, rather than the health of people and places.
Ignorance of this broader framework is revealed in the editorial when its writers claim that “precisely because they benefit farmers, the environment, and consumers, GM crops have been adopted faster than any other agricultural advance in the history of humanity.” Although it is certainly true that GM crops have been “adopted” rapidly the world over in recent decades, it is a mistake and a deception to claim that this is because of supposed benefits to farmers, consumers or the environment. A look at the general characteristics and history of agriculture in the past half century quickly sets the record straight.
Farmers and Consumers
It is difficult to fathom at this time how GMO technology could be construed to be a boon to farmers. For decades, the American countryside has been gutted of its farmers and farming communities by the relentless march of agribusiness’ imperatives to produce more food, more efficiently, whatever the human or environmental costs. In his book Deep Economy, Bill McKibben drives the point home: “Since the end of World War II, America has lost a farm every half hour. … The number of farmers has fallen from half the American population to about 1 percent.” 
This mammoth feat of rural Diaspora has been achieved by replacing diverse small family farms with homogenous industrial monocultures as the basic unit of agricultural production. Monocultures are (usually enormous) fields or farms that grow only one thing at a time, with minimal crop rotation implemented between seasons, maintained by tractor power and high doses of chemical inputs. GMO technology has played no small role in facilitating and capitalizing on the transition to monoculture, because GM crops are most often genetically manipulated to do one of two things: a) resist potent broad-spectrum chemical herbicides , like Monsanto’s Roundup, which is designed to kill any and all non-modified plant life, or b) harbor bacterial genes that produce toxins lethal to pests that consume the GM crop.
Both of these biotechnological innovations provide invaluable services to the industrial model of agriculture because they remedy – in the short term – inherent vulnerabilities of monoculture production. Continual tilling, watering and fertilizing, as well as leaving broken soil bare without cover, invariably will lead to weed problems. Similarly, planting the same one or two crops in constant repetition invariably will lead to pest and disease problems, something diverse farms with a deliberate crop rotation strategy easily can mitigate. Thus GMO biotechnology, as it is most commonly applied, is wrapped and bound within the context of the industrial monoculture, which by its own inherent qualities of lacking diversity, eroding, compacting and depleting soils, and requiring enormous quantities of petroleum for fuel and chemicals, is deeply destructive and unsustainable.
These monocultures have forcibly replaced the energy and intelligence of farmers with the energy of oil, the insights of biotechnology and the shortsighted profit-seeking of agribusiness, resulting in millions of farmers being driven off the land by capitalist economic imperatives for growth, efficiency and maximum production.
As a further insult to farmers, GMO biotechnology has evolved along parallel lines with a set of legal protections that have codified GM seeds as intellectual property, that is, as the patented products of the GM seed and chemical companies that developed their genetic modifications. These multinational corporations make enormous profits selling farmers their GM seeds year after year and yet more profits off the royalties charged for the use of their seed at the expense of farmers, who now cannot legally save their own seed, making them entirely dependent upon a private corporation for the most the fundamental part of their livelihoods.
This perverts a tradition central to agriculture, which has existed since its inception: seed-saving. Farmers, saving seeds from plants that displayed favorable traits and replanting those seeds season after season, have developed diverse varieties specific to the climatic and socio-cultural needs of nearly every bioregion on Earth. GMO patents, along with the economic pressures of a modern market that demands high yields at the expense of diversity, effectively have ended this tradition for the vast majority of farmers working in industrially developed nations, and are making great headway in accomplishing the same in the “developing” world. This undermining of seed diversity renders agriculture radically more vulnerable and less resilient to ecological and climatic variations, thus endangering global food supply and narrowing the component crops of that supply to what is profitable rather than what is healthy or culturally and ecologically appropriate.
Finally, it is difficult to imagine the benefits farmers and consumers may enjoy from consuming herbicide residues like those from Monsanto’s Roundup (developed specifically for Roundup Ready GM seeds), with its active ingredient glyphosate being strongly linked to an increased rate of birth defects and with even one of its “inert” ingredients now shown to be capable of killing human cells. For farmers and farmhands, brief exposure to herbicides containing glyphosate may result in minor or moderate symptoms such as eye, skin, nose and throat irritation, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, while chronic exposure may be connected to increased rates of cancer and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Also difficult to imagine is the benefit consumers enjoy as they are fed increasing amounts of cheap, heavily processed GM “foods,” often made up of little more than various chemical recombinations of GM corn, soy and wheat that are remarkably and obviously deficient in the various micro and macro nutrients required for human health.
But it is not just nutrient deficiencies that render GM foods inadequate or even dangerous to health, but also nutrient excess. The overwhelmingly abundant quantities of sodium (salt) found in processed foods, which accounts for about 75 percent of our total sodium intake, is likely to result in high blood pressure, which is the leading cause of stroke, heart disease and kidney disease.
On top of salt, there is sugar. With the glut of cheap GM corn that our industrial food system relies upon, food scientists have created high-fructose corn syrup, which, because it is so cheap (because subsidized corn is so cheap), is put in just about every processed food and drink one may come across, to make it sweet. The result is that Americans are consuming far more sugar than they ever have before, increasing their chance of heart disease, obesity, cancer, dementia, liver failure, tooth decay and more.
The Environment: Soil, Water and Air
The claim that GM crops have benefited the environment is perhaps even more absurd than that they are a boon for farmers or a blessing to consumers. The negative environmental effects of industrial monocultures are staggering, radically endangering the planet’s soil, water and air.
By compacting and eroding soils with heavy tractors and machinery, destroying soil microbial and invertebrate life via the spraying of toxic chemicals (again, often used in explicit association with GM crops) and replacing organically derived fertilizers that would replenish the soil’s organic matter with synthetic fertilizers that over time negatively alter soil composition, monoculture farming systematically depletes the soil, a process that ultimately ends in desertification.
To summarize with some figures taken from John Jeavon’s How to Grow More Vegetables*:
“Current agricultural practices reportedly destroy approximately 6 pounds of soil for each pound of food produced. United States croplands are losing topsoil about 18 times faster than the soil formation rate. This loss is unsustainable. In fact, worldwide, only about 33 to 49 years’ worth of farmable soil remains.” 
That point bears repeating: This loss is unsustainable, for the soil, for the ecosystems of which they are part, for the planet, which those ecosystems collectively form, and for us humans, who live and thrive or fail on that planet.
The damage done to the Earth’s soil as a result of industrial agriculture is closely tied to the contamination of its waters. Erosion caused by excessive tilling with heavy machinery, exacerbated further by bringing under the plow more lands adjacent to streams and rivers in the attempt to maximize efficiency, means that mammoth amounts of topsoil, synthetic fertilizers and chemical pesticides are being dumped into Earth’s waterways, wreaking havoc on aquatic ecosystems on their path to ocean, where they continue to cause environmental harm.
Even if soils are not tilled too often and farmers leave ample space between croplands and waterways, the chemical fertilizers and pesticides that are so heavily used and relied upon by industrial monocultures will still end up polluting watersheds. This is because most of modern agriculture’s contribution to water pollution is what is called “non-point source pollution,” that is, pollution that is not traceable to a determinate source, precisely because the source is broad and diffuse. The water from rainfall and snowmelts run through and over fields, creating runoff that deposits chemical fertilizers and pesticides, as well as natural pollutants, into rivers, lakes, aquifers, estuaries and, eventually, the sea. Effects of this runoff include serious health problems for humans and livestock who eat the crops irrigated or sprayed with contaminated water and the destabilization of watershed-based ecosystems.
Air pollution is axiomatic to industrial agriculture. Heavy applications of chemical pesticides, usually sprayed from planes or tractors, results in pesticide drift, the movement of pesticide droplets to areas outside the field, including nearby neighborhoods and wildlife habitat, where they endanger the health of humans and animals who may breath in the droplets or absorb them through their skin.
Furthermore, monoculture operations help drive global warming and escalate climate catastrophes by emitting massive quantities of three of the most common greenhouse gases into the atmosphere: carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrous oxide, which together help make agriculture responsible for up to one-third of total greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.
On the farm, tractors spew tons of CO2 into the air as they make pass after pass over immense seas of commodity crops, plowing, disking, mowing, tilling, cultivating, planting, spraying, harvesting and applying fertilizers. Manufacturing those fertilizers for farmers across the globe accounts for up to 575 megatons of CO2-equivilant emissions per year. And of course the fleet of transport vehicles and masses of processing machinery and refrigeration needed to prepare and carry the harvest to the distant corners of globe emit a formidable amount of CO2.
Most of the methane produced by agriculture is a result of the normal digestive processes of farm animals and thus may seem of little concern to an analysis of industrial agriculture. But it is precisely because meat and dairy production have become industrialized, fixed upon objectives of efficiency and profitability, that we have seen small pasture- and animal-oriented farms almost disappear, replaced by contained animal feeding operations (CAFOs), more commonly known as factory farms. CAFOs completely depend upon the cheap GM corn and soy surpluses of the monoculture system to inexpensively and unnaturally fatten the animals for slaughter. The result is a meat industry that can profitably sell huge quantities of its product at artificially low prices, kindling further demand for cheap meat, which in turn justifies and encourages further factory farm production. Meanwhile, the severely mistreated animals are spewing unnumbered tons of methane into the air, while their waste accumulates into a toxic mass, which itself releases yet more methane, as well as nitrous oxide, another potent greenhouse gas.
Nitrous oxide is released into the atmosphere mainly as a result of applying synthetic nitrogen fertilizers to farmland to supplement soils being systematically depleted by industrial monocultures growing GM commodity crops like corn, soy, wheat, rice and cotton.
The dominant conversation about GMOs is missing the point. To speak about GMO technology as such – its inherent harms, risks, or safety – might be an interesting and important discussion to have, but it is certainly not the most immediately relevant to our moral and political discourse. It is not what GMOs are that should demand so much attention buy, rather, what they do, what they allow and facilitate.
In our system of industrial agriculture, their role is unambiguous. To help destructive monocultures become even more productive and, thus, even more destructive to soils and communities; to make farmers increasingly dependent upon and indebted to profit-obsessed corporations; to put at risk the diversity and resilience of our food supply; to facilitate the propagation of disease from agricultural pollutants and unhealthy foods; to contaminate ecosystems and contribute to climate change.
These are the real and present functions of GMO biotechnology. They are not saviors of the poor and the hungry, nor are they gifts to farmers, consumers or the land. They are tools to grow biotech profits and consolidate corporate control over the food system.
 John Jeavons, How to Grow More Vegetables*, p. 1-2. Figures “developed from U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics,” from P. Buringh, “Availability of Agricultural Land for Crop and Livestock Production” and “statistics from the United Nations” (p. 13)
Copyright, Truthout.org. Reprinted with permission